“Fortune favors the bold”, my Father said, quoting the Roman Poet, Virgil, as we walked towards my gate at Port Columbus.
Here I was embarking on a journey to a vast new land and great thrilling adventure, with $67 to my name, a suitcase, and one of my favorite books, The Alchemist in hand.
The past couple of months has been a whirlwind of emotions, a mixture of excitement, anxiety and most of all, wonder. I landed a prestigious role as an International Consultant and would be flying to Belgium for training, then off to my assignment in an emerging market to research the economic profile of the specific country.
I graduated in December of 2007 and a month later, here I was at the airport with my Father and my Mother.
What scared me the most was not leaving the comfort of home or that I’ll be in a scary new world. It was the other unknown...can I actually be successful and make my parents proud? Will I be able to earn enough to be self sufficient and send some money back home? Will I do a good job in my role?
My parents have sacrificed so much leaving their beloved Laos to find opportunities for my siblings and I. Failing them was not an option.
Left to Right: Sera & her sister Kay, Sera & her brother Bay, The Koulabdara Siblings, Sera and her brother Mickey
As we inched closer to the gate, I asked my Father what he meant by the quote and he placed his arm around my shoulders and we walked side by side while he explained.
“Did you know that I almost left Laos before you and your siblings were born? The country was in chaos and we were unsure of our family’s future. Your aunts and uncles all fled to either France, Canada or the U.S.”
“My gut feeling told me to stay. It told me I can do more good in Laos.”
My Father told me that day how brave I was for taking my new role and how proud he was of me. He also taught me to always trust in my decisions and “fortune” will always favor me.
This is my fourth Father’s Day without him. The weight of his death is still a heavy load but I know his legacy lives on in his four precious children. In Bay, his visage and strength. In Kay, his enduring compassion and sacrifice. And Baby Mickey, his kindness, love of life and laughter.
What of his third child? I like to believe that I inherited his boldness and fierce desire to stand for justice.
I think my Father would agree and encourage “Fortune” to continue to favor his daring girl.
Washington, D.C February 2020
Our memory is a funny thing. Sometimes they come crystal clear and others are fading remnants of dust.
February is such a special month. The shortest month but one that is full of love: A deeper love that can change the world if we open our hearts to it.February takes me back to a cozy home on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane. I remember my father planted roses on the left side of the house and my mother planted various other flowers, vegetables and fruits on the right. My siblings and I would run in the yard and sometimes trample on some of the flowers. I remember my mom scolding us and we would move to the front of the house and climb the champa tree - my favorite pastime!
It was early February and I woke up excited for my birthday. I leaped out of bed and ran to wake my father and mother up and found that both were missing. The smell of “mee mama” soon drew me into the kitchen where I found my mother preparing breakfast for us. I demanded to know where my father was with my present - this year, he promised me a book of paper dolls and I was so excited!
My mother told me that he would be home soon and coaxed me into eating my breakfast. After that, I rushed to the front patio and waited for what seemed like forever. As night fell, I gave up and cried myself to sleep.
The next morning, my father woke me up and gave me one of my favorite treats, kao-tom, and a book full of paper dolls before bidding me good-bye to go back to work. I didn’t say a word and didn’t play with the book nor utter a word to my father for a couple of days.
The end of February came and brought two guests to our home. An elderly woman and a young girl a few years older than myself who was walking with a cane. I remember so vividly as she was missing part of her leg. . .yet, she was smiling when she saw me. In her hand was a paper doll.
The woman asked if the doctor was home. I responded “no” and went to find my mother.
My mother chatted with the woman while I clinged to her legs, staring at the little girl. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. My young mind wandered, drowning out the conversation. What happened to her?
The little girl brought me out of my reverie by handing me her paper doll. I shyly took the doll and whispered, “kop jai”.
After they left, my mother hugged me and I saw tears in her eyes. It wasn’t until years later that I realized why.
The little girl was with her parents while they were farming their rice field when the father’s shovel struck an UXO killing him and his wife on impact. The little girl part of her right leg due to the explosion. Luckily, her life was saved and my father was one of two village doctors at the scene.
My father told me that this was one of the most difficult times in his career. He had to operate on the child immediately and the only thing that he could think of was that this could have been one of his own children.
To keep her mind off the pain, my father spoke to the child about paper dolls and how he just bought one for me for my birthday.
After she recovered and was able to walk, the little girl and her grandmother brought a bag of rice, a chicken, and a paper doll to our house as a thank you to my father. My father could have stayed in the heart of Vientiane and worked in the most prestigious hospitals earninging a comfortable living but he knew he was needed most in the rural areas where the problems of UXO and other dangers affect the lives of many.
Most people couldn’t afford to pay their medical bills and my father took his doctor oath to the heart. He often just came home with rice or other food items and never refused to care for those in need.
When the first bomb was dropped, my father was 14 years old. He was surrounded by fear, danger and chaos. His overwhelming love for his fellow countrymen drove him to become a doctor and later a monk.
There were many lessons that my father taught my siblings and I and this is one that I hope to share with all of you: Love.
Here at Legacies, we have a gigantic mission ahead of us: to clear Laos of UXO and care for the thousands of survivors.
We do it out of love and we know we cannot do it alone. Your support will help us move mountains.
Pakse, Laos, December 2019
The history of the Secret War and its effect on the people of Laos and greater community is complex. It is a very tragic one and many lives were lost and families dispersed.The wounds of war are felt on both sides and the healing continues.
I am moved by the leadership shown by the US. It makes me ever more proud to be an American. We do not shy away from our responsibilities. We mend what is broken and do right by our country and our allies. It is what makes us good and strong.
I am equally in awe of the kind spirit of the people of Laos. I didn’t sense any anger or resentment towards the US for bombing Laos. Here it seems that history is simply that, history.
The people focus on building a better future and enjoying the precious moments that is the gift of life. They rally together and welcome the partnership and re-new friendship of the US to once and for all, clear Laos!
I am inspired by what I have seen and felt here in Laos. Like the grace and beauty of the Champa, the Laotian people found a way to forgive and move on. With the strength of the Mekong, Laos will be cleared, the people will rebuild, and the country will regain the might of a million elephants.
Sepon, Laos, December 2019
Legacies of War is the glue that holds all of the players in the sector together. During this transition period, our role is even more important and we must stand strong. There are lot of questions about what’s next for Legacies and we are still mapping out a path.
One thing is clear—The UXO issue in Laos needs to remain on the agenda until Laos is cleared and victims cared for. Funding must stay consistent and our partners know that the US has their backs
Legacies will continue to take leadership on the Hill and expand our reach in the US to connect with all regions of the country. We must build capacity for our staff and grow our board of directors.
There are so many opportunities and this is a time for us to really reflect on what are the most important priorities. We know we cannot be all things to all people. There’s so much that we want to accomplish but we will need to be laser focused and selective.
Legacies is truly lucky to have such strong congressional support and leadership on the Hill and grassroots support throughout the US and abroad. We have an incredible board and volunteers who are dedicated to our mission until the end.
WE CAN CLEAR LAOS WITHIN OUR LIFETIME.
While I am a big advocate for volunteering, activism and fundraising for a cause that you believe in, I believe that simply isn’t enough.
We need to dig deeper and ensure that we truly are making a difference and not unintentionally inflicting harm emotionally or physically.
There’s a handful of companies, entities, and people who creates a compelling story and say that their intention is to build awareness and bring light to the UXO issues.
It is our responsibility and right as consumers to gather all the facts before showing our support by making a purchase.
Where did the goods come from? How did you get it? How’s the staff treated?
What are you doing to give back?
Laos, daily life, a mixture of old and new, nature and city.
Anyone operating in Laos or taking any piece of the country and its people has a responsibility to the community that they are profiting from. In addition to this simple civic duty, I would also urge anyone who is currently thinking of doing business, writing a story, making a film, painting or other ideas to consider the following questions below.
Is this your story to tell? Why are you telling it?
How will this help the people of Laos? What type of help is needed?
Have you researched the history? Spoken with the people?
How will you give back to the people and the country?
Today, about 80 million cluster bombs litter the landscape of Laos - right underneath the land where people thrive.
My views on businesses in Laos: both UXO related and non UXO related has evolved in the 3 weeks stay in Laos.
Is it right to use a weapon of destruction as jewelry or other items? Are we glorifying it? Are we glorifying war? Are we encouraging people to collect scraps and be in harm’s way?
The answer is not so clear cut. There’s so much to consider.
Although it is not Legacies’ role to police each business. I cannot help but have this protective instinct towards Laos, its people and its interests. I also want to be clear that I encourage business there. It just has to be done respectfully and do right by the people.
Sepon, Laos, 2019
There are many businesses, arts and films that are exploiting the stories and history of the Secret War to generate profit. This tragic history is very delicate to so many people—my family lived through it and its horrific past still haunts us to this day.
Coming to Laos has been very difficult for me but I knew it was something I had to do. The country, the history, the people are part of my heart and soul and I must confront the past to build a future.
Although I did not personally live through it, my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles’ experience is in my blood. With every story that they share, they take me on a journey through time.
I share their pain and their loss. Loss of their family, youth and home.
I truly believe that most people are well intentioned. They see something wrong or unjust in the world and they want to help. Most don’t have a clue as to what they should or want to do. They simply want to do something.
Before I left for Laos, I scheduled a meeting with a young photographer from San Diego named Dakota. Funny, two Americans meeting in Laos! When Dakota first learned about the Secret War, he was shocked. I remember his words.
“How can my country have done this?”
I sensed the emotions in his voice and was inspired by his curiosity to learn more and see how he can help. We chatted over coffee and I learned that Dakota is working on a photo book about the Secret War and his hope is for it to inspire action.
Before I took my last sip of coffee, I turned to him and said, “You know that if you tell the story, you have to stick with it until the end. It will become a part of you and you are now responsible.”
“Yes, I understand. And I want to take my time, research, and do it right.”
He's on to something exciting, I can feel it.
We left the cafe. The coffee was good.
Savannakhet Province, Laos, 2019
Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured since the bombing ceased. There are still accidents to this day and our team had the opportunity to meet a few on this trip. We must clear Laos and care for survivors and their families.
The first person that I met was “Grandma Seesom”. Her story is one that will stick with me forever. Grandma Seesom was in her 20s during the Secret War. She remembers the noise, screams, and hiding in the caves with her family. One was a new born baby boy.
Over 45 years later, she was just performing a routine chore that she has been doing for years in her backyard. Only this time, an explosion occurred leaving Grandma Seesom injured and in the hospital for over a week.
How can this happen? Grandma Seesom was only trying to cook for her grandchildren. She’s been cooking at that same spot for years with no incident. This time, she almost lost her life.
As she recounts her story to our team, she had to relive the trauma. Her voice broke as tears flooded down her face.
“I thought I was gone. I thought I wouldn’t see my grandkids again.”
I tried to console her. Holding her hands, all I can think to say was, “you’re still here, you will be here a long time”.
I know that my words are not enough. I have to continue to build awareness and tell Grandma Seesom’s story. We cannot forget that people are still suffering from the remnants of war and it is important that they receive the help that they need and deserve.
There are many others that have suffered in recent years doing daily tasks like collecting wood, or scraps in the forest. These stories are important and we must continue to do our work so we can achieve zero injuries and deaths by UXO.
Xieng Khouang, Laos
The first operator that we conducted a field visit with in Xieng Khouang province was UXO Lao, the national UXO program. I was struck by the beautiful mountains and landscape. The air was so fresh that it automatically made us close our eyes and savor each breath that we took.
It’s funny, how did I not remember that Laos had mountains? So many majestic ones!
As we walked up to the site, the skull signs indicating danger in the area jolted me out of my daydream. I’m walking up to a path where countless men and women lost their lives. A path where a shower of bombs fell for 9 straight years. I felt a chill all over my body. It was a 90 degrees day.
I met Mr. Kingphet, the provincial leader for UXO Lao, who dedicated 19 years of his life to clearing Laos. He was very amiable and proud of his team’s work. UXO Lao is the largest operator - working in 9 of the most heavily impacted provinces.
Before we went to see the surveyed area where several bombies were found, we learned how to stay safe and follow the instructions of the professional men and women. We saw how shallow the bombies were lodged into the earth. Just by shoveling one or two times we can hit a UXO. They are everywhere.
Before we left, we were offered an opportunity to destroy 3 bombies that the team uncovered. I volunteered. For me, it was a way of letting go of the trauma of war, painful history, and honoring my father’s memory of what he stood for.
I uttered a short prayer in my head, counted to three and pressed the button. My heart pounded rapidly from the terrifying noise and I felt the ground beneath me shake. So many emotions, I felt myself trembling. Terror and fear flooded over me as I thought about what destruction the bombs that detonated cause over 45 years ago.
Was this how my 14 year old father felt? This is what he tried to protect us from.
An image of my father and his friends in hiding invaded my head. A group of young boys in the dark sharing three days old rice. Eating in silence, praying to see the light of another day.
My thoughts wandered to my young aunts crossing the great Mekong shivering in the night. When they reached the Thai border, they were far from being safe. The arduous journey to a new life continued.
I let go yet the memories will always remain. People are still being harmed today.
I cried tears of anger that turned into sadness. At that moment, I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be. I looked up at the mountains and the breeze dried my tears. They whispered to me.
Aleena and the team hugged me and we walked forward in unison.
Laos, December 2019
I’m in an unusual position as someone who was born in Laos and am now a proud citizen of the USA.
What will the Laotian government think of me?
Will they consider me Laotian? Do they despise me for being American?
What will they think of the way I look and sound? Will they understand me when I speak in Lao?
Am I wearing my sinh correctly?
I had so many questions. I was nervous and wanted to make sure that I represented Legacies well and earn the trust of the leaders of Laos. I prayed that they would understand how much I love Laos and want to help and do what’s best for the people.
Our first meeting was with the National Regulatory Authority (NRA). The NRA is “responsible for the regulation and coordination of all operators in the country working on the impact of unexploded bombs, artillery shells, grenades, landmines and like ordnance.
The overarching aims of the NRA are to enable all people in Laos to live free from the threat of UXO, help promote national development, and see UXO victims fully integrated into their societies and their needs comprehensively met.”
Right when we stepped into the NRA office, we were warmly welcomed by the Director General. Although he is new to his role, I sensed how sincere and knowledgeable he is of the sector and it was inspiring to hear him speak about the future of the NRA’s work.
I anticipate more collaborations with the operators on the ground and a central location for collecting survey and clearance data.
VTE, Laos, 2019
I feel as if this is what all of my experiences - good and bad, personal as well as professional - have been preparing me for. It still scares me, but I know that if my father were still around, he would tell me to seize the moment, rise to the challenge, and grow into the role.
The UXO sector is a very complex one. Nothing is black or white, with many shades of gray. There’s so many players in the field and all make vital contributions to the overall work.
I see the sector in five main parts:
For progress in the sector to work, all of the partners need to be able to share information and collaborate harmoniously.
My father once translated for American soldiers. He was around 20 years old at the time and just finishing his studies before going on to medical school. He met soldiers who were lost in a village and were struggling to communicate with some villagers. He approached them and gave them directions.
His friend asked why did he help the enemies.
He used this story to teach me that no one is an enemy. Most people want an opportunity to do good and act in kindness. During times of war, most people are just taking orders and we cannot clump them into categories. “There are also Americans who care and are helping Laos.”, he said.
Nothing is black or white, all shades of gray.
I'm Sera and I hope this blog spreads awareness of Laos' fight against unexploded ordnance and the plight of survivors. It also helps me share my family's story and allows me to take action and #lightnewlegacies.